Photographer:Fotograaf: Armenian Genocide Museum-Institue, Yerevan
MAASTRICHT. In many countries, the Armenian genocide of 1915 will be commemorated on 24 April. However, the facts and especially the use of the term, are still extremely controversial. Professor of Turkish Studies Erik-Jan Zürcher, from Leiden, argues that more attention should be given to the matter.
One hundred years ago, during the night of April 24th, the elite of the Christian Armenian minority were arrested by the Ottoman leaders and charged with collaboration with the Russian enemy. In addition, Armenians were said to have attacked Muslims. ‘In order to save the state’, they had to disappear, was the verdict. Deportations – ‘a necessary evil’ – were initiated. A considerable number of the more clever employable children were viewed as spoils of war and taken from their parents to be ‘adopted’ by Muslim families. Many women and girls were raped. Men were usually killed immediately. Those who were led in the direction of the Syrian desert, were almost all women and children. Of the almost 2 million Armenians, approximately 800,000 died. The actual number of deaths is not clear, neither is the number of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Some sources even speak of 1.5 million victims.
These days, ten million Armenians live in France, Russia and the United States. Twenty-two countries, including France and Russia, have acknowledged the Armenian genocide, the United States, among others, have not. President Obama avoids using the G word. Too many interests.
“The acknowledgement of the genocide determines the tense bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey,” Zürcher states. “Where the Armenian community demands that the Turkish government use what they believe is the only correct term – genocide – the Turkish government rejects this demand categorically and continues to speak euphemistically of the ‘Armenian issue’. True, the Turkish say, there are deaths to be deplored on the Armenian side, but this was a result of the war in combination with malnourishment, disease, thirst and exhaustion.”
“It is time we made ourselves heard,” says Zürcher. “I feel that historians, in particular those who are experts in the field of Turkish history of the late Ottoman Empire and 20th-century Turkey, have a special duty to make an effort.” We should no longer pretend that it didn’t happen, as was the general practice in the 1970s and 1980s.
Zürcher knows what he is talking about, because he himself has come a long way.
“As a student and later on as a young lecturer at the university, we were hardly aware of the events in 1915. They were only briefly recorded in school books and sometimes not at all. Moreover, they were not up for discussion, and most certainly not characterised as genocide.”
In his first large and well-received publication from 1984 about the Turkish National Movement (1905-1926), Zürcher paid little attention to the elimination of the Armenians, something that an Armenian friend and colleague pointed out. “It was only much later, when I was part of an exchange scheme with Turkish and Armenian academics, that the essence of those critical comments registered. Justice cannot be done to the period between 1908 and 1925 without acknowledging the Armenian genocide. This can no longer be viewed as a footnote in Turkish history.”
The present official Turkish viewpoint – there was no genocide – resonates among the inhabitants. Even more than that: it is steeped in it. It is difficult to have a different opinion in public, even (or maybe especially) for a Nobel Prize winner of literature like Orhan Pamuk.
Zürcher: “This version of the history is often actually believed.” During the fifty years after the founding of the Turkish State in 1923, there was complete silence about the Armenian issue. “Turkish state education was centred entirely around silencing the past. The same applies to the media, and it may be strongest in the army.”
But he thinks that there is a glimmer of hope: “In recent international historical research, many aspects such as intention, implementation and responsibility have been thoroughly looked into. A milestone was a congress at the university of Istanbul, ten years ago. Since then, more and more Turkish researchers and students are participating. The important task for them is to work on the ‘deprogramming’ of the Turkish population.”
It is not purely about the episode in 1915. Researchers acknowledge more and more that the present Turkish state can no longer be seen as separate from the ethnic cleansing. Zürcher gives two examples. “The Armenians who survived were forced to convert to Islam, and were subsequently absorbed in society at the time as Islamic Turks instead of Christian Armenians. We are talking about tens of thousands of Armenians. It is realistic to state that many Turkish people have Armenian ancestors without knowing it. Then there is the matter of the expropriation of Armenian possessions – not just private properties but also schools, churches, and factories. That provided the recently established state with a powerful financial impulse.”
Zürcher is convinced that it will be a long process. ‘But now that this door has been opened, fortunately it can never be closed again.”
Studium Generale lecture 'The Armenian Genocide' by professor Erik-Jan Zürcher, Tuesday 29 April, 8 p.m., Auditorium Minderbroedersberg 4-6, Free entrance